Hindsight is always hundred percent, yet foresight would be infinitely more valuable for spotting and predicting wine trends. One can second-guess the market by consulting informed parties, mostly French barrel makers and wine market observers and winemakers involved in exporting.
French barrel makers (tonnelerie) enjoy an excellent reputation for their craftsmanship, shape and size expertise amongst world’s winemakers.
Their reputation is such that American barrel manufacturers seek their expertise, and some have set up joint-venture facilities in the U. S. A to benefit their employees. In turn a few French tonnelerie set-up facilities in Missouri, and elsewhere to supply American wineries.
Chairman Henri de Pracomtal of Tonnelerie Taransaud (one of the largest barrel manufacturers in France) claims that both Old- and New World winemakers toned down their use of oak. They now use oak to enhance the wine, whereas previously oak flavours predominated.
Toasting levels have been reduced to underline fruitiness, and barrel sizes have been increased. Instead of 525 liter, 575 liter capacity barrels are used to reduce wood to wine surface.
Another trend is using Romanian, Hungarian, Slovakian, Slovenian, Czech and Russian oak staves for the same barrel. These barrels yield fresher, fruitier, less tannic wines, but also less complex than those aged in French oak.
Seguin-Moreau, another large and famous French tonnelerie experimented with Russian oak from Adyge, and Krasnodar regions. Both woods yielded sufficiently good wines for many Bordeaux chateaux to include them into their barrel programmes.
American white oak barrels cost half that of French, and many winemakers use them for their secondary white wines, and a few for robust reds (Zinfandel and Rhone blends). Spanish wineries like American oak as their wines are highly extracted, high in alcohol and very dark in colour.
Surprisingly, quality Italian winemakers now use more small French barrels (they call them barique) than huge Slovenian or Chestnut upright barrels.
While most large and small wineries use stainless steel for fermentation, some winemakers are reverting to the age practice of barrel fermentation. This technique offers many advantages, but adds to cost. Stainless steel is less expensive easier to clean and modulates temperature, but lacks the “warmth” of wood. R. Mondavi, Oakville winery converted all its fermentation tanks to oak upright containers at great expense, and Michael Mondavi, CEO, of R. Mondavi feels the results have been rewarding, albeit the project very expensive. (Note R. Mondavi is now sold and under another management).
Historically, oak was used as a strong and durable watertight storage container. However, it is now more highly prized due to its ability to oxygenate the wine, particularly during aging.
This gentle incorporation of oxygen yields a soft and round wine, while adding tannin, a preservative, and vanilla, coconut and toasty flavors.
American white oak (querqus alba) has wider grain and high levels of vanillin than European oaks. American oak barrels yield coarse-textured wines. Many winemakers dislike coarse textures especially for their white wines. Some use American oak barrels for their Chardonnay but very sparingly, others blend American oak aged Chardonnay in small proportions to French oak aged wines.
Also, American oak is kiln dried and sawn, rather than naturally dried and hand-split which European barrel makers prefer.
Bordeaux barriques and Burgundy pieces are 225 – 228 litres, respectively; hogsheads weigh in at 300 litres, puncheons at 450 – 500, while demi-muids can accommodate 600 litres.
Barrels over 1000 liter capacity are known as foudres in France, and Fuder in Germany.
Italian winemakers still use 9000-liter Slovenian oak upright containers called botte.
Canadian oak from southern Ontario is a new entrant to the barrel world. The wood is shipped to the U S A for processing. So far, the results are encouraging in that Ontario wood-aged wines taste somewhere between European and American oak-aged wines. Several wineries have now included Ontario oak into their barrel programmes.